The first action you take in the morning says a lot about who you are and your priorities. Some combination of habits and biological makeup requires me to find food immediately. While that’s mildly interesting (at best), I’m becoming more intrigued by my fully conscious morning habits. After I silence my alarm for the fifth time, and before I scavenge my cabinets for food, I do what most people do: scroll through my phone. Clearly, on some level, it’s what I want to do and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re in communication with people across time zones, developments can happen while you’re sleeping.
Sometimes Kendrick Lamar shoots you a clandestine email.
But I’m not just answering messages. Instagram and Snapchat stories of artists are my first destinations. I want to see what my favorite rappers, producers and industry figures were up to last night, or at least what they want me to see. While artists can tailor their social media content to put forth a specific image, I’m more concerned with my desire to absorb that content, filtered or not.
Why do I have this desire and why does it nag me like an itch? It’s a voyeuristic act, sure, but without the perverted connotations. They’re willingly streaming their lives, so it’s not a Rear Window scenario, but it’s still a loaded exchange. I can peer into Future’s AP collection or watch Vinylz cook up next to Stormtroopers without giving them anything in return but social media clout.
This type of communication is unnatural for a human interaction, at least in our current state. Typically, when you share ideas and objects with someone, the person you’re affecting offers a response, you can gauge that response, and work toward a common interpretation of your experiences. When I click on Future’s Snapchat icon, though, I’m giving him none of that. Again, I’m not certain this is an inherently bad dynamic, but it raises questions about our interactions with artists and how technology mediates them.
Artists are increasingly sharing more of their lives on video applications such as Snapchat, Periscope and Instagram and their followers grow every hour. Facebook has also joined the game, pushing its new “story” feature every time I open the app. (By the way, if you post a Facebook story and you’re under the age of 52, we can’t be friends.) This is the latest development in technology adding to the channels of interaction between fan and artist. These apps are repeating the steps that made us obsessed with Myspace, Twitter and the like and adapting to a world in which everyone walks around with a camera-attached-to-a-computer in their pockets.
And it’s fucking working.
It’s incredible to be able to watch a producer tweak a synth line on a random Tuesday night that later becomes the driving chords for a summer banger. We feel like we're a part of something, members of a secret inner circle that sample hits before the masses. Thanks to its intoxicating effect, we're willing to sit through hours of irrelevant content to catch a glimpse at the right time, like the gambling addict who convinces himself the next roll is “the one.”
There’s a humanizing effect at work here, too. We’re given a peek behind the facade when we see rappers interacting with family and friends. ScHoolboy Q has traded in his days of street shit for the life of an embarrassing dad, though, his lyrics still focus more on the former. Chance The Rapper recently began sharing videos of his young daughter—who he once rapped we would never see like Sia—showing the goofy interactions that come with raising a human. I’m nowhere close to having a child of my own, but I can see a future version of myself in both artists and respect them for something outside of their art.
The pendulum swings both ways, though.
We can also bear witness to parts of an artist’s personality that can deter us from viewing their feed and supporting their music. I don’t want to draw attention to destructive habits, so I won’t name examples, but I can think of more than one rapper and producer I follow who often “show out” on the ‘Gram. In one instance, I remember, a young producer’s story jumped from disrespecting homeless drug addicts to showing off substance use in a darkly fetishizing manner. I realized I was following a walking contradiction, which made me lose interest in his activities and his art.
Of course, we all do stupid shit when we’re young—I’d like to take a moment and publicly apologize to ______ Chevrolet for the eggs I threw at your lot that summer—so, hopefully, this producer will look back on his actions and realize he made a mistake. When that day comes, though, I won’t be around for the journey. Maybe I’m being hypocritical and missing out on the chance to see someone grow up, but my desire to not engage is directly related to my access. Had I not been privy to his behavior and personality, I’d have a different image of him based solely on his art.
Why are we drawn into spending our valuable time sifting through video feeds if there’s so much variation in the outcome? Is it because we can get a deeper look at a rapper’s emotional complexities or simply watch someone act like a jackass. Or is it fascinating enough just to get as close as possible to experiencing life from another’s perspective? In his noted essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Thomas Nagel made the point that it’s impossible, or at least immensely difficult, to know what it’s like to live as another person, much less a non-human animal. It’s sobering when you realize the depth of your subjectivity. Ultimately, you can’t explain what you feel or see when, for example, you experience pain or see color. You can share your experience with others to a point, but after that comes isolation.
And that’s the daunting truth, which could explain the itch to look at someone else’s experiences. Face-to-face interaction may be a better remedy, but it’s simply much easier to reach over and hit some buttons. I mentioned the Hitchcock film Rear Window earlier and I think more parallels exist. In the film, the main character Jeff, played by James Stewart, gradually develops an obsessive need to spy on his neighbors after being isolated in his apartment because of an injury. There are long sequences of him furiously trying to scratch under his cast, meant to mirror his itch for gazing. In the same way, our mental isolation could be the catalyst for clicking around on Instagram every morning. We’re looking for something shared, whether it’s struggling to balance work and parenting or hedonistic indulgence. Even more so if our life isn’t going well. We’re trying to escape to a place, a better one, instead of just escaping a fortress of subjectivity. It makes sense that we’re obsessed with breaking through those walls.
This impenetrability is what we’re fighting against with video apps, interviews, podcasts and 140-character messages. When we can chip away at that wall, it gets us closer to sharing ourselves and understanding others. It will remain after we’ve hurled these technological boulders, though, and no amount of circling and trumpets will change it. Armchair philosophy aside, we’re attached to watching others and it plagues us like an itch.
The history of innovation assures us that we’re not prepared for the consequences, for better or worse.